18th Century Ideas about Man-Made Climate Change

Anne Eriksen. Foto: IKOS, UiO.

Can grain crops be increased? The issue was heatedly debated in 18th Century Denmark-Norway, both for patriotic and economic reasons. In a newly published article by Anne Eriksen examines how the historian Gerhard Schøning (1722–80) handled this issue. His answered the question affirmatively. Chopping down much of the forests that covered Norway would change the climate radically for the better, he argued. As a consequence of the warmer weather, the fertility of the soil would improve. Climate interested a number of 18th century writers. It was not only a part of geotheory, but also included in theories about the history of society, law and culture as well as in medical thought.

Schøning’s argument was nearly entirely built on examples from Greek and Roman history, cited to demonstrate that since classical times, this kind of changes had already taken place in other parts of Europe. The rhetoric of exemplarity relied on a quantity as well as on the uncontested exemplarity of classical literature itself. The cases he cites are numerous (serial) instantiations of the same general mechanism: The effect of human interventions in nature. Yet at the same time they are models to follow, even if it will take some effort. Norway will never be as warm and fertile as southern countries, but Schøning exhorts his compatriots to “take courage and start!” History consisted of examples to learn from and models to follow.